No surprise here: The communications team for Mitt Romney is as disciplined and tightly wound as its buttoned-up, methodical boss.
Just ask any reporter who has been on the receiving end of a scold about a tweet, an admonishment about a story, or at worst, a sincere threat of legal action by a Romney aide.
Campaign Communications Director Gail Gitcho says that the team has a good relationship with reporters. “There’s always going to be tension between campaign operatives because reporters want more access and campaigns want to be able to control the message,” she said. “We try to be as accommodating as possible.”
While recent additions have brought the communications crew to dozens, the core group is a mix of new blood and familiar faces from Romney’s Boston days and 2008 presidential bid. Gitcho served as Romney’s regional press secretary in 2008 and left her post as communications director for Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts to join this year’s effort. Press secretary Andrea Saul worked for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and later for former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist’s 2010 run for Senate (she left when he decided to run as an independent instead of a Republican) before joining the Romney team last year. Spokesman Rick Gorka served in the same capacity with Romney while he was Massachusetts governor and was affectionately known to the Boston press corps as “Rikki Spinz.”
The team is defined by its unflagging fidelity to the boss’s message—the economy, just the economy, and nothing but the economy—and a strict velvet-rope mentality, a carryover from when senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom ran communications for Romney in Boston. Unscripted moments with Romney are exceedingly rare, and you won’t often find him shooting the breeze with reporters. There is no Straight Talk Express—McCain’s famously accessible, always on-the-record campaign bus from his 2000 bid.
Romney’s core communications staffers have posted a fairly even performance, even as they trudged through a months-long nomination process and then immediately transitioned to do battle with President Obama’s veteran team. They’ve handled criticism and controversy over Romney’s record at Bain Capital, his changes on policy positions, and even on his religion. (Saul once instructed reporters to replace “Mormon” with “Jew” when they were test-driving sentences about Romney’s faith.)
But the intense pressure of conducting a campaign in a 24/7 news cycle has produced a few off-message moments that have ranged from wince-inducing to just funny.
Take, for instance, Fehrnstrom’s comment likening Romney’s transition from the primaries to the general election to an “Etch A Sketch.” That’s a line you don’t want anywhere near a candidate who has shifted his positions on several issues, and one that’s still a staple of Democratic messaging. Or Gorka losing his temper with shouting reporters in Poland and offering this classic response: “Kiss my ass. This is a holy site for the Polish people. Show some respect.” Or Saul noting that a steelworker’s wife who died of cancer, portrayed (incorrectly, fact-checkers have found) in an Obama super PAC ad as an indirect victim of Romney’s decisions at Bain, would have had insurance if she had lived in Massachusetts under Romney’s universal health care law—the law that’s such a sore subject with conservatives. The law was a deal-killer for some in the primaries.
Still, those flubs are hardly significant in the grander scheme of things, says Dan Schnur, who was communications director for McCain’s presidential bid in 2000 and now runs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “An occasional meltdown notwithstanding, it’s been very effective,” Schnur said of the Romney messaging team. “Every word you say, every syllable you utter, and every text or tweet you send is scrutinized and dissected and probed for hidden meaning,” he added. “I don’t know what it’s like to live in a petri dish, but working in a presidential communication shop, they come awfully close.”
This article appears in the August 27, 2012, edition of NJ Convention Daily.